'The House That Jack Built': Has Lars von Trier Lost Ability to Shock?
The Danish auteur has built a career on being cinema's bad boy, but his serial killer drama, starring Matt Dillon, has inspired more shrugs than scandal.
Acting the provocateur has been good business for Lars von Trier.
The Danish film director — known for staging orgies of good-looking Nordics pretending to be mentally handicapped (in 1998's The Idiots), for crushing Willem Dafoe's man parts with a rock (Antichrist, 2009), for his "gallery of cocks" (Nymphomaniac, 2013) and, most infamously, for calling himself a Nazi who sympathizes with Adolf Hitler at the Cannes press conference for his 2010 apocalyptic drama Melancholia — has fully embraced the role as the quality cinema enfant terrible, for both fun and profit.
But with his latest, The House That Jack Built, von Trier's self-hyped image as the troll of art house film may have played itself out.
The pic, which stars Matt Dillon as Jack, a brutal but surprisingly self-reflective serial killer, premiered in the U.S. and U.K. over the weekend, following its premiere in May at the Cannes Film Festival and release across much of Europe. Instead of the shock and awe that usually accompanies a von Trier production, however, House That Jack Built has been greeted by a shrug.
"Sick, violent and a total bore" was The New York Times' take on the two-and-a-half-hour horror trip, which mixes its gore with long digressions into the nature of art and society — many of them illustrated by clips from von Trier’s own films. Britain's Independent called it "Lars von Trier’s most deadening film yet," while The Hollywood Reporter critic David Rooney summed up the film this way: "A homicidal spree that doubles as an autoerotic ego massage."
Filmgoers in Europe, who have been von Trier's most ardent supporters, mostly chose to ignore his latest provocation. In Germany, House That Jack Built sold just 15,500 tickets for a box office take of roughly $135,000. That compares to the 84,000 admissions, and $650,000 tally, in the territory for von Trier's equally gruesome but apparently more intriguing Antichrist. In France, fewer than 50,000 fans bought a ticket, a fraction of the more than 1.4 million that came out for 2003's Dogville.
In the U.K., indie distributor Curzon opened the title this past weekend to just under $20,000, including previews, an ill omen for the movie's future prospects. Given that momentum, it's unlikely House That Jack Built will be able to reach the British box office of Antichrist (roughly $225,000), not to mention the more mainstream — for von Trier — success of Melancholia, which earned just under $1 million at the U.K. box office.
So what went wrong? House That Jack Built followed the PR game plan familiar to fans of von Trier's previous releases: News of the project leaked early, shortly after the premiere of Nymphomaniac, to drum up interest among international buyers, who swooped in to prebuy the film on the basis of von Trier's script.
Casting news — Uma Thurman, Bruno Ganz and Riley Keough joining Dillon as Jack — kept the project in the headlines. Then sales company TrustNordisk took a page from its successful "orgasm poster" campaign for Nymphomaniac and released a series of posters showing von Trier and the film's cast trussed up with twine as one of Jack's victims.
Uma Thurman is serial killer Jack's first victim in The House That Jack Built.
Director Lars von Trier — bound but not gagged — in a promotional poster for The House That Jack Built
But the #MeToo movement — which went global late last year following the criminal allegations of sexual harassment and abuse against Harvey Weinstein — threw a wrench into the film's promotion campaign. Von Trier himself briefly became the focus of #MeToo allegations when Icelandic singer Bjork claimed in a Facebook post that she was “"humiliated and harassed" by an unnamed "Danish director" during a film shoot. Bjork didn't call out von Trier by name, but she has only appeared in a few feature films, most notably in von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, for which she won the best actress award at Cannes. Bjork claimed also famously clashed with von Trier during production, at one point walking off the set.
Von Trier denied sexually harassing Bjork but, in the media, the image of the filmmaker as a #MeToo troll and that of The House That Jack Built as an "anti-#MeToo" film stuck.
Many critics saw the pic as von Trier snarking at the political correctness of the Time's Up movement by making a film focusing on the torture, abuse and killing of women (the director, correctly, noted that Jack gleefully murders men as well as women, but that point was largely missed).
"The film came out at exactly the wrong time," says Jenny Jecke, deputy editor at Moviepilot, an online portal for German film fans. "It was seen as being about the #MeToo movement, and then as not having much to say about it. Fans complained it was more about von Trier than about #MeToo."
Indeed, more astute critics noted the pic's largely self-referential nature — von Trier cites his own movies in House That Jack Built to illustrate his character's point about the transgressive nature of art. Jecke notes as well that the genre of the serial killer movie was a poor fit for von Trier's art house audience. "They are more open to transgressive sex, as with Nymphomaniac, than the transgressive violence of a horror film," she says.
Whether modern audiences — particularly ones in the horror-drenched U.S. — are at all shocked by the gore on display in House That Jack Built is an open question. IFC, the film's U.S. distributor, released a unrated "director's cut" for a single night in 100 theaters ahead of the official release of an R-rated version on Dec. 14. But there is little in the uncut version of the pic that will surprise fans of popular "torture porn" horror franchises such as Saw and Hostel. And, as many critics have noted, von Trier's storytelling and stilted dialogue is deliberately stylized, making even the grimmest scenes seem unrealistic and therefore less scary. Many have convincingly argued House That Jack Built is best understood as a "horror comedy," with von Trier's tongue firmly in cheek throughout.
IFC's release looks more like a marketing ploy, and a successful one at that. House That Jack Built grossed $210,549 domestically on its first weekend — not bad, given its weak performance internationally. By comparison, Antichrist earned around $400,000 in its entire theatrical run for IFC in the U.S..
The performance of The House That Jack Built on VOD — IFC did a day-and-date multiplatform release for the film, similar to its approach for Antichrist — will go a long way in determining its ultimate financial success or failure.
But in the annals of Lars von Trier shockers, the director's latest appears to have missed the mark.